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Archive for December, 2015

Big Organizing Victory in the South: Volkswagen Workers to Be Represented by UAW

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAnother story about working people in the South successfully organizing comes our way via Chattanooga, Tennessee, where skilled trades employees at Volkswagen’s plant in the town voted overwhelmingly to be represented by UAW Local 42. More than 70% of workers who cast ballots voted for the union.

Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said:

A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multiyear contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga. We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time.

Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8, commended the workers after the vote:

Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress. We’re proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit.

Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of UAW, urged Volkswagen to drop plans to appeal the election:

It’s overdue time for Volkswagen to refocus on the values that made it a successful brand — environmental sustainability and meaningful employee representation. The hardworking members of UAW Local 42 stand ready to assist in the Volkswagen comeback story. Our hope is that the company now is ready to move forward in the German spirit of co-determination.

This blog originally appeared at AFLCIO.org on December 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Workers in Trump Las Vegas Hotel Vote to Unionize

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

LauraClawsonHappy news for workers … and news I really, really want a Donald Trump quote on:

After two days of voting in a National Labor Relations Board election, a majority of workers at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas have voted “YES” to be represented by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the Bartenders Union Local 165 of UNITE HERE. Over 500 employees of the hotel are in the union’s bargaining units and were eligible to vote.

Trump Las Vegas workers voted in the NLRB election on December 4 and 5 at their hotel. This victory for workers at the luxury non-gaming hotel co-owned by businessman Donald Trump and casino owner Phillip Ruffin, comes nine months after workers at the Trump International Hotel Toronto voted to join UNITE HERE, and one week after the Trump Toronto workers ratified their first contract.

During the organizing drive, 86 percent of workers signed union cards, but they faced opposition from management:

 According to NLRB charges filed by the union, five hotel workers were “unfairly suspended for exercising their legal right to wear a union button and organize their coworkers” last year (they were eventually reinstated with back pay, along with an agreement to post workers rights publicly and not interfere with future organizing). Last June, the union filed new charges alleging the management “violated the federally protected rights of workers to participate in union activities” including “incidents of alleged physical assault, verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats by management.” The workers charged the managers with blocking organizers from distributing pro-union literature in the workers’ dining room, while stealthily allowing anti-union activists to campaign during work hours.

So, Donald: Here are some workers in your own hotel fighting to make American jobs better. Tell us how you feel.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on December 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

 

The Economy: The New Normal Isn’t

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Robert-Borosage_The November jobs report – 211,000 jobs with the headline unemployment rate staying at 5 percent – met “expectations.” It is now virtually inevitable that the Federal Reserve will begin raising interest rates at its December 15-16 meetings, as Fed Chair Janet Yellen indicated in her congressional testimony yesterday.

The Federal Reserve action essentially declares this economy the new normal. The unemployment rate has dropped from its 10 percent depths in the Great Recession to 5 percent. The economy has enjoyed a record 69 months of private sector jobs growth. Fed Chair Janet Yellen suggests the U.S. economy has sufficient momentum to continue to grow.

While inflation remains far below the Fed “target” of 2 percent, Yellen anticipates that the dollar won’t continue to rise in value and oil won’t continue to fall, suggesting that inflation might pick up in future months. So, she argues, it is time for the Fed to begin – in baby steps and very cautiously – to raise interest rates.

But the new normal is neither normal nor acceptable. Nearly 16 million people are still in need of full-time work. The percentage of the civilian population working or actively looking for work remained virtually unchanged at 62.5 percent, near a 40-year low (back to when women began entering the workforce in large numbers).

African-Americans suffer unemployment rates at 9.4 percent, almost twice the national average. Only one in five of young African-Americans – ages 16 to 19 – are employed.

We still haven’t returned to the same levels of employment, counting new entrants, that we enjoyed before the recession in 2007. Wages are still stagnant, up barely over 2 percent for the year for non-supervisory workers, not close to keeping up with the cost of health care or college or child care.

Worse, the Fed is tightening against the threat of future inflation that exists only in its imagination. And it does so in a world dangerously close to global downturn. Europe verges on deflation, with the European bank extending extraordinary measures to fend off decline. China is slowing faster than expected or admitted. Japan is back in recession. Brazil is suffering the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, with other emerging market countries in decline.

The U.S. economy is not strong enough to be the buyer of last resort for a world desperate to export its way to recovery. The U.S. dollar has already dramatically increased in value, with the Euro and other currencies weakening. This makes imports cheaper and exports more expensive. Already U.S. manufacturing is getting hit.

The Fed is understandably eager to begin raising rates after keeping them near zero for seven years. Free money feeds the bankers’ casino, inflates bubbles, and makes it easier for corporations to doctor their balance sheets. What is missing is any sensible policy from the Congress to get this economy going. Corporations are parking over two trillion abroad to avoid paying taxes. If Congress weren’t ruled by ideologues and bounders, it would force them to pay their fair share of taxes and use that money to rebuild the country, putting people to work in work that needs to be done.

Both the Fed Chair Yellen and the IMF have been calling for action from the Congress without success. Instead, Congress turns itself inside out to pass a modest highway bill that won’t come close to addressing the continued decline in our infrastructure.

This world is closer to a global recession than to healthy normal economic growth. The Fed’s likely action will be modest. But at a time when we need far bolder action across the globe, the Fed is signaling success when it ought to be raising warning flags.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on December 4, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Robert Borosage is the Co-Director of the Campaign for America’s Future.

 

What Scott Walker’s Elimination Of Wisconsin’s Living Wage Law Means For Workers

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Bryce CovertLast year, 100 low-wage workers in Wisconsin decided to sue their governor, Scott Walker (R), over their pay. The state had a century-old statute on the books saying that the minimum wage “shall be not less than a living wage,” enough “to permit an employee to maintain herself or himself in minimum comfort, decency, physical and moral well-being.” The workers said they weren’t making enough to meet that standard, demanding the governor take the required action to increase it.

But this week they were handed a final defeat: A judge dismissed their lawsuit. That’s not because Walker’s administration was found to be in compliance with the statute. It’s because rather than increase the state’s minimum wage, the administration simply erased the law.

“The lawsuit has just been dismissed because there’s now no law to rule on,” explained Lisa Lucas, communications director for Wisconsin Jobs Now, one of the groups that helped bring the original suit. “So it wasn’t surprising. But it was disappointing.”

An 11-hour addition to the state budget passed and signed in July eliminated the living wage statute, instead replacing all references to a living wage with the words “minimum wage.” “The budget itself was a really sneaky, underhanded way to do it,” Lucas said. “They stuck the repeal in an omnibus motion.” And it also flew under the radar thanks to bigger controversies over other such additions, such as the failed attempts to gut the state’s government transparency laws.

The budget’s amendment completely changed the ordinance. It was specifically put forward in 1913 to ensure that women and minors were paid enough to be able to afford the cost of basic necessities like rent and clothing, which was updated in 1919 to cover all workers. Now it merely ensures a minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in Wisconsin since the last time the federal minimum wage went up in 2009.

And in that intervening time since the last hike, new Census Bureau numbers show that median household income fell significantly in two-thirds of counties in the state, dropping by at least 10 percent in 10 and only rising in two. Lucas sees a connection to the minimum wage. “Prices have gone up, everything has gone up including rent, except the minimum wage,” she said. And an analysis by her organization found that nearly 47 percent of the state’s workers make less than $15 an hour.

Lucas said discussions with the legal team at her organization are still ongoing, but given that there’s no law to sue under anymore, it is unlikely to pursue more legal action. Instead, the group is focusing on political pressure in 2016 to rally voters and elect officials who support a minimum wage increase. And while the defeat was disappointing, it may have come with a silver lining. “If there’s anything good that comes out of it, it’s just revved up the community to work that much harder in 2016,” she said. The workers themselves who were involved in the original suit “are more amped up than ever to go elect some people who will support them and fight for their values.”

And while she pointed out that a $15 minimum wage bill has gained some support in the state legislature, she also said her group will be focused on issues in addition to a higher minimum wage: paid leave, scheduling reform, and more full-time hours among them. “Besides wages, there’s other things that workers need,” she said.

Wisconsin is “home of the labor movement,” she noted. “We’re proud of our progressive history and we want to continue living it.”

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on December 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

 

The Entire Labor Movement Should Be Paying Attention to Wisconsin’s Kohler Strike

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

imagesTwo thousand workers at the Kohler faucet plant in Wisconsin have been walking the picket since November 16. Such a strike would have been commonplace decades ago. Nowadays it is a rarity. Major strikes of over 1,000 workers are few and far between. Even rarer are open-ended strikes at an industrial plant.

Today’s battered labor movement no longer thinks of watershed strikes; we are so beaten down and used to defeat that no particular loss is seen as critical. And sadly, it’s not as if labor must win this particular battle to survive. The truth is labor has learned to live with defeat. But a more fundamental point is at stake: Labor must redevelop the ability to win this type of strike if we are to have any chance of survival.

The Kohler strike is an open-ended, large scale, non-publicity style strike in manufacturing, a traditionally organized industry. Labor has become adept at hit-and-run publicity strikes such as the Walmart, retail and fast food strikes of recent years. Although important, these are not the fight-to-the-finish type battles, nor do they involve anywhere near the number of workers or level of participation, that this strike does. It is likely that more days of work lost to striking have accumulated in two weeks of the Kohler strike than in five years of retail and fast food strike activity.

Decades ago, victory or at least a draw in such a strike would have been likely. Here we have a union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), with close to a century of unionism and a long history of confrontational class struggle. The strike involves almost 100% participation by the workers facing a historically anti-union corporation. Indeed, the Kohler plant was one of the most anti-union holdouts in the North at a time when most corporations operating in Northern and Midwestern states like Wisconsin temporarily accepted workers’ demands for unions and the right to strike.

The Kohler plant has a history of intense battles, including a 1934 strike which resulted in the formation of a company union. After the workers abandoned company unionism for the UAW, one of the longest strikes in U.S. history commenced in 1954. The strike in many ways was a dividing line between the mass militancy of the 1930s era and the modern era, which outlaws effective trade union activity. The strike produced picket line militancy, congressional hearings replete with conservative attacks on militancy, a Supreme Court case and finally a settlement in 1966 which kept the union intact. Unlike in many of today’s battles, the national UAW and AFL treated this is a key battle and helped sustain a national boycott of Kohler products for almost a decade. Despite the company’s vehement anti-unionism, the labor movement was able to fight the battle to a draw.

As recent as 20 or 30 years ago, progressives in the labor movement regarded strike solidarity as critical to labor’s success. The idea was that when a section of the working class went into an important battle, all of labor must view their victory as our highest priority. Battles such as the P9 strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, the Detroit news strike and the Staley lockoutdrew support from thousands of trade unionists across the country who viewed those battles as their battles. Today, in contrast, when workers choose to fight, they often do so in isolation or with sporadic support from the entire labor movement.

Former ILWU longshore organizing director Peter Olney wrote a perceptive article a number of years ago which could have been written about the Kohler strike. Writing in the aftermath of the RIO Tinto lockout where workers employed massive solidarity to beat back an attack of unionism at a long-organized mine, Olney called for reviving the lost art of strike strategy. After detailing the many forgotten elements of such strategy, Olney concluded, “Perhaps most importantly, the labor movement has lost the concept of ‘swarming solidarity.’ Central labor bodies—once charged with mobilizing labor forces in their geographic areas in support of striking or locked-out workers—have become principally tasked with political action work.”

Olney pointed out that defensive battles like the Kohler strike are critical for the labor movement to win. “Every time these battles are lost, it sends out a widespread message that unions can’t defend their members and the union movement is dead. Conversely, when workers win these fights, confidence in labor grows and organizing becomes a bit easier because of the positive demonstration effect.” By this measure, the labor movement must rally behind the battle of the Kohler workers and view their victory as essential for the labor movement.

Yet victory is far from certain, for we have seen this script play itself over and over in the last three decades. A local union, tired of the unfair management’s relentless attacks, decides to take a stand. The courageous workers go out on strike with spirits high on the picket line. After some spirited picket line activity, the employer seeks and obtains and injunction against mass picketing. The union largely complies with this directive. The more enlightened unionists in the city and throughout the country help organize some sporadic solidarity rallies and holiday fundraising while most in labor goes about their business. The employer hires permanent replacement scabs, and production continues. The strike is eventually compromised or lost.

If labor is to not just survive but thrive, we must be able to change that story line—and win. That means concrete acts of solidarity such as resolutions of support, solidarity efforts and fundraising. But it should also mean that the labor movement begins to discuss what it means to break out of this cycle of losses—a cycle that is directly attributable to the rules of the game being fixed in capital’s favor. One hundred years ago, the AFL under Samuel Gompers’ leadership strategized about how to defy injunctions, as did a generation of trade unionists in the 1930s.

Labor developed a philosophy of defiance to unjust laws and promoted the right to an effective strike. Today’s national labor movement offers no such strategic guidance and is far more likely to counsel compliance with unjust labor laws.

In recent years, many in labor have become accustomed to highly choreographed strikes and well-scripted campaigns. All those things certainly have a place in the worker’s movement. Yet, real trade unionism based on local unions rooted in the workplace do not work that way. We don’t always get to pick the battles we support or the struggles that take place. But solidarity, and our survival of the labor movement, requires we support those increasingly rare instances when workers do choose to fight. The Wisconsin Kohler strike is exactly such a battle in need of such support.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on December 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011) and can be reached at joe.burns2@gmail.com.

 

Scott Walker Boots 15,000 People Off Food Stamps In Three Months

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

AlanPyke_108x108In just three months, 15,000 people in Wisconsin have already lost food stamps thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) decision to enforce full work requirements for the program in Milwaukee despite economic conditions dire enough to trigger a federal reprieve.

Walker’s administration made the policy change in April. Since then, anyone deemed to be an able-bodied adult with no dependents to care for must prove they are working or participating in job training programs for at least 20 hours per week. Failing to meet that standard means losing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits after three months.

The 15,000 bumped from the rolls from May to July is only half the number the state predicts will ultimately lose food stamps because of the move.

The 20-hour weekly work requirement is typically waived when economic conditions are too tight. Since making people hungrier doesn’t create jobs where none exist, the federal government alerts states each year to the areas within their borders where the work rules can be suspended. Other linkages between SNAP enrollment and a person’s willingness to work a job if offered one remain in place, but the hard-and-fast hourly rule is waived.

Unless a governor decides not to heed the federal economists who study local labor markets, as Walker did here and numerous other state leaders – most Republican – have done in the past few years. In Wisconsin, about 60,000 of the state’s nearly 800,000 SNAP recipients were expected to be subject to the new rules.

There are 14 counties in Wisconsin where the labor market is too weak for the federal government to enforce the requirements. Walker declined to except those counties when his administration reinstated the stiffer rules, leaving food stamps recipients to contend with work rules in local economies where work is too hard to find.

The 14 counties contain roughly a quarter of the state’s 5.8 million overall population, but more than half of Wisconsin’s non-white population. Mostly that’s because three of the state’s most ethnically diverse population centers – Milwaukee, Racine, and Beloit – all qualify as “Labor Surplus Areas” for fiscal year 2016. The additional burdens of Walker’s food stamps decision are therefore falling on about one in four of his citizens, but one of every two people of color in his state.

Sherrie Tussler heads the Hunger Task Force, a Milwaukee group that distributes food donations to food banks and shelters. Walker’s move “will bankrupt our food banks” as impoverished people lose access to a modest food stipend, Tussler told the Wisconsin State Journal.

There is supposed to be an escape valve for the pressure on anti-hunger networks that states create by imposing work rules in places where federal bean-counters believe they are untenable. Participation in a job training program can stand in for payroll employment to fulfill the requirement.

But that valve often fails to rescue people who search for jobs that don’t exist. Few states actually have sufficient slots available in job training programs to satisfy the demand for those slots from people who can’t find work, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Beneficiaries who are denied entry into a program that’s over capacity still lose their benefits when the three-month clock runs out.

In Wisconsin, unemployed food stamps recipients who don’t have a disability or a dependent are automatically enrolled in the state’s SNAP Employment and Training program. But getting SNAP E&T programs right is hard and expensive, and true success at launching people toward self-sufficiency is rare.

In Milwaukee County, only one in every 14 childless able-bodied adults who’s enrolled in the state training system has actually found a job through it. The impact of Walker’s move there “will result in wide scale shortages in Milwaukee [food banks],” Tussler wrote to the governor in October.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on December 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

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